Fetch Clay, Make Man started with a photograph of Muhammad Ali and Stepin Fetchit in the window of Oakland’s Afrocentric bookstore, Marcus Books.
“You need plays and movies to explore one aspect of Muhammad Ali’s life,” Playwright Will Power said. “Muhammad Ali is just one of those epic figures, and here’s a chapter that people don’t really know much about.”
Fetch Clay, Make Man is about the unlikely friendship between champion boxer Muhammad Ali and actor Stephin Fetchit. Allen finds that the play is a “wonderful exploration” of not only these two men, but of the sociopolitical spirit of the times they lived through.
Muhammad Ali, formerly known as Cassius Clay, was one of the most recognized and lauded figures of boxing, winning gold in the 1960 Summer Olympics. Stepin Fetchit was a Hollywood actor in the 1930s, and one of the first African Americans to become a millionaire. But he was a controversial figure—he often played harmful and stereotypical roles in white films, and, by the 1960s, his career was over. While Ali was on the rise, he and Fetchit became friends.
Their relationship serves as a testament to the complexities of the Black experience in Hollywood and sports. The play also touches upon the racial justice movement of the 60s, especially after the assassination of Ali’s former friend, Malcom X.
Power also said that the entire play feels like a “chessboard with only kings and queens” because of how each character has a certain level of notability and depth. This comparison applies to the production’s company as well, with Debbie Allen at the helm directing film and television stars Ray Fisher, Edwin Lee Gibson, and Alexis Floyd.
Allen has had a prolific career that has spanned decades on both stage and screen. As an actress, she starred as Anita in West Side Story and won a Golden Globe for her role as Lydia Grant in Fame. She is not only a recurring role as Dr. Catherine Fox on Grey’s Anatomy, but an Executive Producer of the show as well. As a choreographer, she has worked with stars like Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Lena Horne, Dolly Parton, and more. And Allen has directed episodes of hit televison shows like Insecure, Scandal, and Empire. Her sister, Phylicia Rashad, directed Blues for an Alabama Sky at the Mark Taper Forum last season. Now, it’s Allen’s turn to direct at the Kirk Douglas Theatre with Fetch Clay, Make Man.
Allen actually met Ali when she was younger, when she and her mother attended one of his first poetry readings in Houston, Texas. “What I remember the most was the excitement of everyone when he walked into the room,” she said. “And I remember drinking champagne, when no one was looking!”
A core component of the play is rhythm. Power’s background in rap and classical verse influences his work greatly—and is part of the reason why he is considered one of the founding writers of hip-hop theatre. Dance serves as a metaphor and reality for boxers, as they “dance” about to not get hit.
Allen agrees, and her proximity to the worlds of dance and sports helps her draw that connection further. Her husband is former NBA Lakers player Norman Nixon, and the two run the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles, which trains students ages four and up.
Despite taking place in the past, both Power and Allen feel that Fetch Clay, Make Man speaks to audiences in the present. “Fetch Clay, Make Man deals with sexism, racism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam,” she said. “With the divisiveness going on in our country right now, it speaks to the challenges...for people who are considered minorities, who are on the rise.”
Power, too, finds that Fetch Clay, Make Man is timeless, despite taking place in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1960s. “It deals with...public persona—who is that person or those personas that you want [the public] to see and what are the complexities in all of us?”
Allen finds that Ali, especially, speaks to the ever-changing political climate. Ali was known for trash-talking during his matches, often pushing the limits of his opponents. Allen said he is similar to the ways people on both sides of the political spectrum are pushing against the status quo.
“People are walking lines of political correctness on one side, and blatantly tearing them down on the other,” she said. “It’s a great American saga, if you will. Come [to Fetch Clay, Make Man] ready to share and learn.”